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As if there aren’t enough psychological ways to torment survivors of domestic violence, abusers are now accessing another one: smart home technology. Everything from our TVs to our doorbells, our refrigerators to our cars can be controlled remotely. The problem is, we’re not the only ones who can control them.
In turn, survivors—many of whom have already left their abuser and assumed they were living a safe, new existence—are being besieged by random acts of confusion aimed at setting them on edge and, while making them seem delusional to law enforcement and the courts when they report it.
“If they [abusers] can’t physically abuse someone because of a criminal charge, this is a way to really get one hell of a rise out of them. It’s not leaving any trace and there’s no physical evidence,” says Attorney Alexis Moore, cyberstalking expert, risk management consultant, survivor and author of Surviving a Cyberstalker.
Moore says her clients have reported things like an abuser whom, during the hottest summer days, would remotely turn on the heat in the survivor’s house via her smart thermostat just to unnerve her and remind her he was in control.
Another abuser would repeatedly unlock a survivor’s home and car doors remotely. When the survivor tried to report it, the abuser petitioned the judge in their children’s custody case that this was a security issue he was worried about, making the survivor appear as an unfit mother.
Another abuser would unlock a survivor’s electronic front door, go inside and take just one item from her home at a time, like a bracelet or a pair of shoes. The survivor kept thinking she was losing things and, in some respect, her mind along with them. She knew reporting these missing items to the police without any proof of a break-in would sound outrageous.
There are also reported incidents of abusers listening in through a survivors' smart TVs, devices like the Amazon Alexa or Echo, or wi-fi-enabled home security cameras. Those who are tech savvy can figure out how to use them as built-in spy devices, says Moore, evesdropping on conversations in whatever room of the home these devices are placed in and then using that information to stalk, threaten or intimidate a survivor.
While some of these offenses might sound tame compared to more violent types of abuse, Moore says this sort of control can cause real trauma, especially since the survivors often struggle to find anyone who will believe them.
“It’s meant to psychologically torment,” says Moore, who adds that abusers are savvy enough to know that most of these stalking-type incidents will not be taken seriously by law enforcement.
Often times, these things often go hand-in-hand with other types of abuse or child custody battles, with the abuser tormenting the protective parent before court as to make them rattled. Sometimes, says Moore, the abuser will pin the survivor as someone who is mentally ill, a claim the judge may consider when she says lights flicker in her home for no reason at all hours of the day and claims her estranged partner is to blame.
But … What Can You Do?
While one would be advised by the companies who manufacture these smart home devices to simply change your Wi-Fi password frequently in order to avoid hacking, this is often not enough to stop shrewd stalkers. But it is a good start, says Moore, who tells survivors to change their passwords to a combination of letters, numbers and symbols that don’t mimic personal parts of their life—no pet's names or kid's birthdays, for instance. Make sure you pick a different and unique password for each device.
Also, just being aware of the hacking pitfalls smart technology can bring with it should be a given for survivors. Knowing that bringing a smart TV or an Alexa into your home could mean a hackers might be able to hear your conversations should give you pause if you’re currently being stalked or harassed by an abusive partner.
According to experts, you should also…
- Avoid using public Wi-Fi for your devices. Turn off your “automatically connect settings.” Hackers can break in through public wi-fi security holes and steal your passwords and other personal information.
- Make sure software for all your devices is updated regularly. Not all devices will do this automatically, so you may need to go into settings and update manually
- If possible, buy a router that has smart home security built into it.
Most importantly, stresses Moore, a survivor should never feel shamed into silence. Keeping a log of all the suspicious activity occurring will help you in reporting your case.
“The use of tech to stalk is real. We live in a cyber era where technology will always outpace law enforcement, legislation and victim resources.”
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